Former two-term Gov. Brendan Byrne, who mobsters said was too ethical to be bribed and who authorized the law permitting gambling in Atlantic City, has died at age 93.
Byrne, a Democrat, died Thursday at a home in Livingston, his son Tom Byrne said. He suffered an infection that went into his lungs and "was too weak to fight," the son said.
Byrne built his reputation as a crusading prosecutor and held numerous governmental positions during more than 30 years of public service. He also signed New Jersey's first income tax into law and authorized the law permitting gambling in Atlantic City during his two terms as the state's chief executive.
He won his first term as governor in 1973, beating Republican state Rep. Charles W. Sandman Jr. by more than 700,000 votes. His campaign was helped by an FBI surveillance tape that showed mobsters discussing how Byrne, the Essex County prosecutor in the 1960s, was too ethical to be bribed.
In a New York Post headline, Byrne was proclaimed "The Man the Mob Couldn't Buy." That slogan ended up on bumper stickers that reminded voters in the Watergate era that not all politicians were unscrupulous.
Fellow politicians on Thursday remembered Byrne for his honesty and integrity.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said Byrne had "an extraordinary career of public service" and did his job "with integrity, honesty, intelligence, wit and flair." State Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat, said New Jersey had lost one of its "most politically courageous public leaders."
After taking office, Byrne began to tackle the contentious issue of how to finance the state's public education system after a 1973 state Supreme Court decision declaring that the state's method of funding public education through local property taxes, along with state and federal aid, violated a clause in the state Constitution guaranteeing a "thorough and efficient" education.
Byrne proposed the income tax to satisfy the court's order, but the idea was unpopular with residents and lawmakers and was not approved by the Legislature until July 1976, after the court ordered all public schools closed until a new funding source was in place.
Despite the controversy over the income tax, Byrne easily won re-election in 1977, beating GOP state Sen. Raymond H. Bateman by nearly 300,000 votes.
During his first term, Byrne signed legislation creating the state Department of the Public Advocate and the state Department of Energy.
In 1976, he authorized a referendum that led to the approval of legalized gambling in Atlantic City, a once-popular resort area that had fallen on hard times by the early 1970s. Money earned through the casinos has since been used to revitalize parts of the city and rebuild neighborhoods and for other projects across the state.
Long after Byrne left office, he continued to be an active voice and weighed in on several issues, including gubernatorial elections and matters involving Rutgers University.
Byrne was back in the news in February 2010, when a man on a London street punched him in the face. Byrne, then 85, suffered facial cuts and soreness but declined hospital treatment afterward.
In February 2015, Byrne and three other former New Jersey governors urged the state Senate to delay a vote on Christie's nominee for a panel overseeing a massive pine reserve. The bipartisan group of ex-governors claimed the nomination would "undermine the independence" of the commission, but the senate approved the nominee for the job.
Byrne, who was born in West Orange, attended Seton Hall University for a year before enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1943. He served as a pilot for two years, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors before returning to New Jersey and entering Princeton University, where he graduated in 1949.
Byrne then enrolled at Harvard Law School, earning his degree in 1951 and entering private practice. Gov. Robert B. Meyner, also a Democrat, named Byrne an assistant counsel in 1955, and a year later Byrne became Meyner's executive secretary.
In 1959, Byrne was appointed Essex County prosecutor, a post he held for nine years. After serving a two-year stint as president of the state's Board of Public Utilities, he was appointed state Superior Court judge in 1970 and became assignment judge for Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. He resigned that post in 1973 after announcing that he would run for governor.
After leaving office in 1982, he became a senior partner at a law firm in Roseland.